Archive for the 'Johanna Knox' Category

Confessions of a Bird of the Year campaign manager

Percy Bagnall's colour lithograph of two black-backed gulls with typically smug expressions

Percy Bagnall's colour lithograph of two black-backed gulls with unpleasantly smug expressions (click for image credit)

Last November I posted about that great New Zealand institution (yes, I reckon I can call it that now) the annual Bird of the Year poll.

For the following 12 months I harboured a secret longing to become a Bird of the Year campaign manager for one particular candidate – the brown skua. Like most New Zealanders I love an underdog, and anyway brown skuas are cool. Did you know they often live in family units with a female head of nest-hold who takes two or more mates?

As November 2014 approached, I emailed the Bird of the Year folks and begged to be a campaign manager. I was sure I was early enough to stake my claim to the brown skua, but NO! Who’d got in first? Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei – whose winning 2013 campaign for the mōhua propelled that bird to superstardom!

Okay – next choice. It was suggested to me that a similarly reviled underdog was the black-backed gull. You know – the one that would eat your leftover fish and chips plus a passing duckling all in one gulp?

I was sold!

I decided to plan a negative campaign. I mean, really, why would you vote for these pests? Black-backed gulls are ‘super-abundant’. They’re the only native birds – apart from the self-introduced spur-winged plover – that are NOT protected under the Wildlife Act, and for good reason. Aided and abetted by humans, black-backed gull populations have exploded over the last century or so.

I decided my campaign would encourage people not to vote for the black-backed gull, but instead for some of the rarer native birds that it displaces or attacks. To that end, I invented a gull character – Captain Cack the Black-back – from whom all campaigning would ostensibly come.

Next I invited one of my favourite local illustrators – Gavin Mouldey – to join in as co-manager, which he happily did. (He lives in Wellington’s Island Bay and beach life is a major theme in his work.)

Captain Cack’s initial campaign blurb was deemed ‘too controversial’ to go onto the main Seabird of the Year site – although you can see parts of it regurgitated (because that’s what birds do) on the campaign blog and more will be added soon.

Cack also, appropriately, has a Twitter account – which I have to be careful not to post from over-zealously! Today in Cack’s Twitter feed was a lovely announcement about buff weka chicks hatching, along with a photo of the adorable little things.

In my head I heard Cack say, ‘Yum!’ and before I knew it, that was what I/Cack had tweeted in reply.

It was several minutes before I realised that no matter how much in the spirit of humour my tweet was, it could seriously offend the people who posted the chick photo. So I deleted it.

(Actually I was travelling on the Wairarapa train at the time, and just as I thought to delete the tweet, the train went into the second-longest tunnel in New Zealand, and I had to wait many excruciating minutes until I had cellphone coverage again – all the while desperately hoping no one would be offended in the meantime.)

So that was day two of the campaign. There are three weeks in all for us campaign managers to get our messages across and for YOU to vote – you have until 24 November.

But whatever you do – don’t back the black-backs!

Test your Kiwi bus savvy

Dunedin bus drivers (click for image credit)

Dunedin bus drivers (click for image credit)

Certain rules for riding on a bus are drummed into us, but others are unspoken – mysterious to the uninitiated. If you’re a regular bus user, you almost certainly know them; you’ve figured them out, or simply absorbed them.

But if you’re not?

Here’s a tale of a hapless bus-virgin by the name of Barry. How many faux pas can he fit into one bus ride? And how many can you, Dear Reader, spot?

Barry’s bus trip

Barry usually drives to his workplace in Island Bay, but today his car is at the garage, so he boards the no. 1 bus at Courtenay Place, and buys his ticket from the cheery driver.

Damn – no window seats left! He’ll have to sit by someone. It would be good to be near the back door, so he sits by a young woman, who shoots him a strange look and squirms.

After several stops she becomes very restless indeed. She’s rustling things, zipping things up, smoothing her hair and checking pockets. Barry wonders – what’s her problem?

The bus stops, and the back door swings open. The woman looks at Barry expectantly.

What? What does she want from him?

‘Excuse me,’ she says irritably. ‘This is my stop.’

Well, she could have told him, thinks Barry.

By the time the bus reaches the Parade, the only others on board are a sad-looking woman with five shopping bags and a father reading a picture book to his toddler. As the bus pulls in at the stop, the sad-looking woman trudges to the back door, and waits. The driver opens the front door but seemingly forgets the back.

Interesting, thinks Barry, and sits back to observe what will happen.

The sad-looking woman stands by the shut door and looks sadder. Oblivious, the bus driver shrugs, and pulls away from the curb.

The woman looks like she might cry. She lurches down the aisle, and speaks softly with the driver. He pulls in again, where he isn’t meant to, and lets her off, calling, ‘Sorry ma’am!’

Idiot, thinks Barry.

Barry’s stop is next, and it seems to be the father and child’s, too.

‘Time to push the button!’ says the dad. He holds his daughter on his knees as she stretches towards the button on the pole. She wobbles; her arms flail.

I need to help, thinks Barry. He reaches up and pushes his own button.


The child lets out an earsplitting wail, which continues after the bus stops. Her father wrangles her out the door, and somehow still manages to call, ‘Cheers, driver!’

What a fuss, thinks Barry. He hops up from his own seat and, with nothing but a sigh of relief, leaps nimbly from back door to the footpath.

Barry made at least five big blunders on his bus trip. Did you spot them all?


1. Barry sat by a female!

He should have checked to see if there were any seats beside males available first, rather than simply heading for the spot he wanted. If you sit beside someone of another gender when seats beside your own are available, people will … wonder.

2. Barry did not read the coded signals that the woman was getting off at the next stop.

Consider the intricate dance that an experienced bus-rider engages in when it’s time to disembark. If you’re sitting by the window and you’ll need to get past the person beside you, you should – at least 15 seconds in advance of your stop – begin to organise your belongings audibly and with slightly exaggerated movements. These should be visible in the peripheral vision of the person next to you.

That person should then shift a little in their own seat, and perhaps point their feet towards the aisle, to indicate to you (in your peripheral vision) that they have registered your need to disembark, and are ready to get up for you as soon as the bus stops. It’s quite possible for all this to take place with no eye contact between the two people at all.

Occasionally the person by the window won’t get the message that the person on the aisle knows they want to get off, and they may organise their belongings increasingly frantically.

In this case, the person on the aisle should reassure the person by the window, turning to them and saying, ‘Are you getting off at the next stop?’(It’s more polite than hissing, ‘Calm down! I can’t stand up YET!’)

All of this was, of course, lost on Barry.

3. When the driver didn’t open the back door for the sad woman with five bags, Barry should have called to the bus driver, ‘Back door please, driver!’

Obviously the woman was too shy, or too sad, or too new to all this New Zealand bus stuff to call down the aisle to the driver herself. Barry is not shy, and as a good bus-riding citizen, he should have helped her out.

4. Barry should not have pushed the button before the child.

Really, Barry? You thought that was helping?

Okay, maybe Barry was worried the button wouldn’t get pushed in time for the stop. But generally the parent has the situation under control. If the worst comes to the worst, they will push the button in some creative way that enables the kid to still feel like they’ve done it themself.

5. Barry didn’t thank the driver when he disembarked!

This was especially imperative as Barry is in Wellington. (Note he was catching the number 1 to Island Bay.) In Wellington it’s the done thing to call, ‘Thank you!’ or, ‘Thanks, driver!’ or, ‘Cheers!’ as you disembark.

Sure, if you get an unpleasant driver you may withhold your expression of gratitude to make a point. However, we know from paragraph one that the driver was cheery. And don’t hold it against him that he forgot to open the back door for the sad woman with five bags. He may be tired, overworked and underpaid. (And he did apologise once he realised.)

Wellington's buses then... (click for image credit)

Wellington's buses then... (click for image credit)

... and now (click for image credit)

... and now (click for image credit)

Afterword: That Wellington thank-the-driver thing

It’s true. Wellington is one of the few places in the world where thanking your bus driver as you disembark is almost expected, and it has been this way for as long as any of my friends remember (that’s back to the late 1970s).

In Wellington, thanking the driver is not just something that particularly courteous people do. It’s a proud, ubiquitous tradition, although there is some anecdotal evidence that it may be on the wane.

I’m told that thanking the driver is also highly traditional in Dunedin, but less noticeable perhaps, because fewer people use public transport there. Meanwhile in Auckland, the tradition seems to have caught on around the 1990s, and is noticeable in the inner city, but not so much in the surrounding areas.

Internationally, thanking bus drivers is particularly expected in San Francisco. (Hurrah! We Wellingtonians like comparing our city to San Francisco.)

So what’s all this about?

A few of my friends posited that – in Wellington at least – the tradition may have roots in a working-class habit of always thanking those in the service industries.

Kerry Jimson said, ‘Part of thanking someone who is in a service industry for me relates directly to my socialist upbringing. No one is a slave, therefore, even though they are being paid to do their job, they do this of their own free will. So, when someone does something for you, you thank them.‘

Kerry speculated that early Wellington was a hotbed of egalitarianism. For example, ‘There was an egalitarian ideal expressed in state schools, where the kids of criminals and labourers rubbed shoulders with the kids of judges and civil servants, which, I suspect, was particularly strong in Wellington …’

As for Dunedin, he suggested, ‘Ah, it’s those polite Scots …’

The call of the grey ghost

The South Island (top) and North Island kōkako, painted by John Gerrard Keulemans (click for image credit)

The South Island (top) and North Island kōkako, painted by John Gerrard Keulemans (click for image credit)

Those who are lucky – and persistent – might catch a glimpse of it gliding into the bush, or a snippet of haunting song. Nicknamed ‘the grey ghost’, it is the elusive South Island kōkako.


For 40 years it had been seen only occasionally – and none of those sightings had been officially verified. In 2007, to the dismay of some conservationists and ornithologists, the South Island kōkako was declared extinct by New Zealand’s Bird Threat Ranking Panel.

Those who were convinced the bird still existed began a campaign to prove it. They felt there was a moral obligation to do so, as the bird was certainly endangered, and without official acceptance it existed, there would be no support or funding for saving it.

A database was set up for recent encounters with the bird. Reports have come in from scattered locations all around the South Island, but mostly towards its western side. They are often from trampers, hunters or trappers.

In 2012 researchers chose 13 of the most compelling reports from their database of 241, and submitted them to New Zealand’s Bird Threat Ranking Panel. This was enough for the panel to change the South Island kōkako’s status from ‘extinct’ to ‘data deficient’.

Following on from that, the Ornithological Society of New Zealand’s Records Appraisal Committee deemed one of those reports ‘accepted’, and considered several others ‘probable’. These successes were announced in the media at the end of November 2013.

The hunt for evidence

Work has just begun, and for campaigners the race is on to get the hard evidence they need to prove the South Island kōkako exists for sure. Last summer holidaymakers walking the Heaphy Track snapped hasty photos of what they were pretty sure was a South Island kōkako in the trees above. The images are blurry, and show only a grey, kōkako-shaped blob high in the branches, but they give hope that clearer photographic or video evidence may emerge soon.


The greatest immediate threats to the South Island kōkako (as to many native birds) will be introduced predators – particularly stoats, rats, possums and feral cats.

2014 is going to be a mast year in New Zealand – when beech trees and tussocks produce especially large volumes of seed, beginning an ecological chain reaction that results in predator populations exploding. The South Island, rich in beech forest, will be especially hard hit.

Why so elusive?

If the bird has survived, it has presumably done so in small numbers for a century or more.

The South Island kōkako is much shyer than its North Island relative, and it doesn’t seem to be curious about intruders in the same way many birds are. It’s difficult to draw it into the presence of humans. Perhaps it was always this way, or perhaps only shyer birds survived after the arrival of humans and introduced predators – shyness may well be a heritable trait in these birds.

Recognising a South Island kōkako

Sightings are ranked. Those that are considered most compelling involve seeing a bird that fits the description not more 10 metres away with the naked eye, or the equivalent through binoculars.

Kōkako are smaller than kererū (wood pigeons) but larger than tūī. Crucial to identification is seeing the wattles on either side of the throat. On the South Island kōkako these seem to range from bright orange to pale yellow, and they sometimes have a bit of blue on them as well. The wattles are probably most prominent around breeding season – these birds nest from December to March.

Less compelling, but still important, sightings may involve seeing the bird at a greater distance away, or not getting a clear view of the wattles but seeing the bird exhibit defining kōkako-like behaviour: either running along branches or logs, or making large hops or leaps.

A shy song

‘Non-visual’ reports involve hearing the bird’s song. This resembles that of the North Island kōkako, but, like everything else about the grey ghost, is more elusive. The South Island bird doesn’t repeat the same notes over and over. It’s more likely to call once, then stop. There are also historical reports of it mimicking other birds, and in its repertoire it has harsh, animal-like sounds – some like goat and deer.

One classic kōkako call sounds a little like blowing over the neck of an empty glass bottle. Researcher Ron Nilsson also told me, ‘The kōkako are the only birds in New Zealand who have the ability to slide a note from one octave to another. If you are lucky enough to hear one of these notes then there is only one bird it can possibly be, and that is a kōkako.’

If you think you’ve encountered a South Island kōkako, report it at the Grey ghost website and at New Zealand Birds Online.

Thanks for assistance to Ron Nilsson and Alec Milne.

The battle of the birds

The 2013 Bird of the Year (click for image credit)

The 2013 Bird of the Year (click for image credit)

Two weeks ago New Zealand’s Bird of the Year 2013 was announced – this year’s triumphant winner was the mōhua (or yellowhead). Run by Forest & Bird, the annual Bird of the Year contest is a uniquely New Zealand initiative. As far as we know there’s nothing like it anywhere else in the world.

It was begun in 2005 to celebrate New Zealand’s native birds and highlight the threats they face. Around 1,000 people voted in the first poll, and since then the event’s popularity has grown.

In 2010 Forest & Bird communications officer Mandy Herrick introduced the idea of having campaign managers – often celebrities – for each bird. Mandy says, ‘I think the campaigners that come on board all have their different strengths – some are powerful orators and choose to do a video address. Others have graphic design skills, or friends in the right areas.’ In 2012 one campaign manager had his bird tattooed on his bicep.

Bird of the Year is not without its dramas: ‘One of the strangest competitions was when kākāriki won in 2010. That year our voting topped 15,000 votes, and we were delighted that people were flocking to the polls, until we learnt that some mad-keen kākāriki enthusiast had hacked our system and was ‘topping up’ the kākāriki vote count by about 500 votes a day. After that we put in new security measures.’

The kākāriki – guilty of election fraud? (click for image credit)

The kākāriki – guilty of election fraud? (click for image credit)

The 2013 competition – in which nearly 13,000 people voted – had a community feel. Tainui School in Dunedin campaigned vigorously for ruru (moreporks), which came runner up. The Playcentre Association backed the southern rockhopper penguin, and a group of Wellingtonians, enjoying the resurgence of kākā around some inner city suburbs (thanks to the Zealandia sanctuary) banded together to support their favourite garden visitor.

Mandy would like to see more children’s groups involved in future. She says, ‘Kids apply a certain single-mindedness to campaigning that’ll no doubt blow the competition out of water in years to come.’

She admits that she herself always secretly roots for the albatross: ‘I had the pleasure of seeing a few up-close in Kaikōura, from a boat. I loved their large, comical powder-pink feet and their plane-like wings. It was like watching a magic trick as it folded its wings into its body. I was mesmerised from then on.’

‘One of the most incredible facts I learnt is that sometimes when they come back to terra firma to breed, they have trouble folding their wings because they’ve been locked into flight-mode for so long. I just love that thought; that they’re true ocean wanderers. They’re up there riding those polar currents for years on end, and if we’re lucky, we’ll get to see a glimpse of their life as they raise a family. New Zealand is the albatross capital of the world, but most people don’t know this fact.’

An elegantly soaring albatross (click for image credit)

An elegantly soaring albatross (click for image credit)

Bird of the Year is a chance to showcase the remarkable richness of New Zealand’s native birdlife – with a mix of common garden birds and more endangered treasures in the running: ‘Although it’s essential to highlight the fact that these birds are hanging onto life by a toehold, it’s a chance for us to share some of their quirks, for example kākāpō smell great, the hihi (stitchbird) is the only bird to mate face to face, and the New Zealand robin is mathematically gifted. It helps to create a light-hearted conversation that everyone can engage in.’

When the competition started, common birds, such as pīwakawaka (fantails) and kererū (native wood pigeon), won the title. But Mandy explains that in recent years, ‘we’re seeing lots of birds in the top five that most New Zealanders would have never seen, unless they’d gone out to a public island sanctuary such as Tiritiri Matangi, or a mainland sanctuary. To most New Zealanders these are essentially mythical birds that live on offshore islands. My small hope is that people will join the conservation movement to help these birds flourish, and perhaps bring them closer to home.’

Such has been the success of New Zealand’s Bird of the Year competition, that an organisation in Australia is looking to our example to start running one of their own.

Suitable for young people?: controversial children’s literature

The book in the centre of New Zealand's most recent children's book controversy (cover image courtesy of Ted Dawes)

The book in the centre of New Zealand's most recent children's book controversy (cover image courtesy of Ted Dawes)

When Into the river by Ted Dawe won the young adult fiction category at the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards in June – and scooped Book of the Year – controversy broke out on social media and in the mainstream media. The book contained several paragraphs of sexually explicit writing. Its detractors called it pornography, while supporters said it served not as pornography but as a description of the emptiness of sexual connection without emotional investment.

Into the river was also criticised by some for presenting a bleak, disturbing side of life generally. Others argued that young adult literature as a whole should portray a full spectrum of experiences – and that we need books that reflect the varying realities of New Zealand teenagers’ lives.

It wasn’t the first time sex in a young adult book had caused ructions. In 1998 Paula Boock‘s novel Dare, truth or promise also won both the young adult section and the supreme prize at the awards, drawing condemnation from people such as Graham Capill, who believed its subject matter – a romance between two teenage girls – was unsuitable for its audience. The blue lawn by William Taylor, which explored a romantically charged (but not sexual) relationship between two teenage boys, had likewise been criticised when it won the 1995 Senior Fiction Award in New Zealand.

It’s easy to spot recurring themes here, and studying the controversies surrounding particular books can provide important cultural and historical information. That’s one reason controversial books are a focus of the National Children’s Collection (NCC) at the National Library of New Zealand.

Mary Skarott, research librarian children’s literature, explained to me: ‘Part of the role of the NCC is to provide a resource for research into children’s literature, both now and in the future. For this reason, books that caused controversy are a valuable part of the collection, as they provide something of a social barometer of views at the time they were published – i.e. how new books were received, and the debates they triggered, is an indicator of what was and wasn’t thought to be acceptable in books for children.’

It’s not just controversies around new books that reveal social mores and divides. Skarott says, ‘Books that have been available for a time can become controversial as societal attitudes change, for example books containing sexual and racial stereotypes (Enid Blyton being the classic example).’ So, while most libraries eventually ‘weed’ such books, the NCC holds onto them.

Washday at the pa (1964), by Ans Westra, is another controversial book in the collection. It was removed from schools after issues were raised over its portrayal of Māori living conditions. One photograph in the work caused particular offence, as it showed a child standing on an oven. Te Papa’s Collections Online site goes into greater detail.

Another controversial book, Our street, first published in 1949, was Brian Sutton-Smith‘s semi-autobiographical tale of a group of boys in post-war Wellington whose exploits included lying, getting into the cinema without paying, and burning down a rival gang’s fort. According to this biography of Sutton-Smith: ‘Conservative representatives of local Education Boards and Headmasters’ Associations condemned Sutton-Smith’s depiction of salty language and rough-and-tumble play in his publications, but members of the Labour Party praised them for meeting a national need for stories about the country’s children.’

Te Ara’s story on children’s literature is coming up in our next theme: Creative and Intellectual Life.